It’s time for a new era of cooperation on the Yarlung Tsangpo

The Yarlung Tsangpo river system is vulnerable to short term exploitation as India and China race to stake pre-emptive claims

This is part of a special series of articles produced by our sister site on the future of the Yarlung Tsangpo river – one of the world’s great transboundary rivers – which starts on the Tibetan Plateau before passing through India and Bangladesh.

Also read:
Why India and China should leave the Yarlung Tsangpo alone
World’s largest hydropower project planned for the Tibetan Plateau
Yarlung Tsangpo river is a living ecosytem, not just a source of hydropower

The Brahmaputra, or more accurately, the Yarlung Tsangpo Brahmaputra-Jamuna river, begins in the high glaciers of the Tibetan Himalaya. Its most dramatic passages come as it turns to plunge through the world’s deepest gorge: for 400 kilometres, the river twists around the mountains, dropping more than 2,000 metres in altitude and giving up huge energy potential as it goes. Hydropower experts see it as a potential energy Eldorado.  

It exits the gorge into the north-eastern corner of India and descends from there into the Assam valley, then to the vast deltaic lowlands of Bangladesh, where it joins with the Ganga. When it reaches the end of its journey in the Bay of Bengal, it has crossed three of the world’s most populous countries – China, India and Bangladesh.  

This majestic river carries a volume of water greater than the combined flow of the 20 largest rivers in Europe, a greater volume than any river bar the Amazon and the Congo; it carries vast volumes of silt, the curse of dam builders, but life-giving to farmers and fish, from the high Himalaya to the tropical seas of the Bay of Bengal. 

For thousands of years, millions of people have lived along its banks, dependent on its pulse for the rhythms of their lives. It has inspired music and dance, stories and legend, the peoples’ tributes to the unchanging presence that is the foundation of their livelihoods.    

But this great river is now under threat, a threat explored further in a special report published by Climate change will alter its flow over the long-term, as glaciers, monsoon patterns and ground water reserves react to rising temperatures and changing patterns of use.

More urgently, and potentially catastrophically, the race to exploit the river’s energy potential, to establish the competitive claims of prior use, to build dams, diversions and barrages to harvest the Yarlung Tsangpo’s power, risks destroying not only the river’s unique character, but its wider economic, cultural and ecological value.    

It is not only China that is eyeing the energy potential of the Yarlung Tsangpo. The lack of a cooperative framework for managing the whole river system has left it vulnerable to short-term, competitive exploitation as rival neighbours race to stake pre-emptive claims.

In India, 168 massive dams are proposed on the upper reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo River and its tributaries in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, both of them states rich in flora, fauna and cultural diversity. As in China, these plans are being made with little concern for the wider health of the river system or the interests of the millions of people who depend upon it.  It is a race in which everyone risks becoming a loser. 

This is not an argument against development, but a concern that the wrong kind of development, pursued in competition with neighbouring riparian states, risks destroying vital ecosystems that we only partially understand.

Governments, to date, have not been the Yarlung Tsangpo’s friend, prioritising narrow, short-term developments ahead of the long-term health of the river, and the economic and other security of their peoples. As the Indian academic and water expert Rohan D’Souza has powerfully argued, a river must be seen as a “collection of pulses, not a quantum of water flows.” The “hydrocracy” – the water bureaucracy  – that has dominated official discussions, he argues, is like the blind person who touches an elephant’s tail and thinks he knows the entire animal.

It is high time we looked at the whole elephant, an effort that demands that we widen the circle of discussion beyond the narrow concerns of state-directed water bureaucracies and hydropower interests. Inter-state rivalry is as blinkered and dangerous an approach as is the predominance of narrow engineering interests over the larger concerns of livelihoods and ecological security.